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  If you’re fairly conversant with Nigeria’s real estate industry, you will have heard about the Certificate of Occupancy—or C of O –more than a few times. It’s an important document, one that’s sought after by people who want to purchase and acquire the rights to land. The frequency with which it’s mentioned in discussions about property indicates just how vital it is.
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Land purchase transactions are often invalid if they do not involve a C of O. You will want to ensure that whoever you’re acquiring real estate from does possess it, as it is proof that they truly have a legal right to occupy the land. But what’s a Certificate of Occupancy? And why is it so crucial to the real estate business? These are questions we’ll be answering in this article.

What Is A Certificate Of Occupancy?

A Certificate of Occupancy is a document that indicates that its holder has a legal right to occupy a piece of land or property. It is issued by the government, which has the power to grant a ‘statutory right of occupancy’. Anyone who holds this document can use, rent out, sell, and close a mortgage on the property for which it exists without fear of falling afoul of the law. If a piece of real estate does not have a C of O, the government can take over it at any time without paying compensation. It’s worth noting that the document does not confer ownership of land—which is ultimately vested in the government. It does give anyone who possesses it the right to occupy it for 99 years (as specified by the Land Use Act 1978). The right to the land can be renewed after this time elapses.

What Does A C Of O Contain?

An authentic C of O will contain a Certificate of Occupancy number, plot number, file number, plot size, location details, and survey plan. Other items you will find on this document are the date on which it was issued, the lease term, initial annual ground rent fees, the purpose for which the land is used, and terms and conditions regarding land occupancy.
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Before the state or federal government issues a C of O for any property, that piece of real estate must first be registered with the Surveyor General of the State or Federation (the appropriate authority will depend on whether the land in question is held by the state or federal government).

The Benefits Of Having A Certificate Of Occupancy

Here are a number of reasons why you should have a Certificate of Occupancy:
  • A C of O gives its holder the right to land or property, which cannot be rightfully contested by other parties (excluding exceptional cases).
  • The government cannot legally seize a piece of real estate for which a C of O exists without offering compensation to its holder.
  • In certain locations, property for which a C of O exist are more valuable than those without it. They can attract a higher purchase price than similar real estate that lack the document.
  • You can use a C of O as collateral for loans obtained from financial institutions.
  • You can initiate or take part in a mortgage transaction if you have a Certificate of Occupancy.

How To Get A Certificate Of Occupancy In Nigeria

If you would like to obtain a Certificate of Occupancy, you can do so from three sources. First, you can get it from the government if you are purchasing land directly from them. The principal advantage of doing this is that there’s no uncertainty about who owns the property. However, you will need to apply for the document. Alternatively, you may secure a C of O from a family or community that currently holds the land which you are looking to acquire. But you will have to ascertain that they truly have a right to the land and that there are no disputes concerning it. If it’s free of controversy, you can change the ownership title at the land registry to confirm that you have gained possession of the land. Finally, a reputable real estate company will provide you with the relevant C of O if you have bought land from them.
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For more, read our article, How to Obtain a Certificate of Occupancy in Lagos State.

Other Points To Note

Here are a number of points to note about the C of O:
  • There can only be one Certificate of Occupancy for any single piece of land or property. In the case that two C of Os exist, one is almost certainly a forgery or must have been issued erroneously. Therefore, property buyers and holders must guard against counterfeit versions of this document.
  • The C of O does not always confer an irrefutable right to property. This is especially true if a landlord has held his or her land before the Land Use Act became law. In such a case, the landlord can be considered to have better proof of ownership than a challenger who has a Certificate of Occupancy for the land being contested.
  • Before moving to obtain a Certificate of Occupancy, make sure to verify that the land in question has not been acquired by the government, or is not pre-designated for government use. You can ascertain this by conducting a search at the Land Registry in your state.
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This article was first published on 22nd December 2022


Ikenna Nwachukwu holds a bachelor's degree in Economics from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. He loves to look at the world through multiple lenses- economic, political, religious and philosophical- and to write about what he observes in a witty, yet reflective style.

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